The contrast between light and dark has long been a central concern for artist George Anthony Morton, both in his art and his life. “The concept of duality—this dark and light thing—it’s applicable to my artistic process, my struggles,” Morton says in a new documentary about his life, titled Master of Light. “You see the oneness of it all.” Those contrasts manifest between Morton growing up poor in Kansas City, addiction problems in his family, and the 11 years he spent in federal prison, and his more recent success as a painter, his incredible love for his family, and his commitment to healing. As a devotee of Rembrandt, the play between shadow and light is the focus of his painting, both technically and personally.
Directed by Rosa Ruth Boesten, Master of Light, which premiered at the SXSW festival in Austin on Saturday, follows Morton, now based in Atlanta, as he seeks to heal his relationship with his mother and understand his past during repeated trips to Kansas City to paint family members. One narrative that has followed Morton since his release from prison has been his journey “from inmate to artist.” Whether it’s a cable news feature in Kansas City, made shortly after his release in 2012, or a 2017 New York Times article about heading to Italy to further his art education, his triumph over difficult circumstances often overshadows the work itself. Boesten’s task in making a feature-length documentary about Morton’s life, then, would be to go deeper, focusing on his art as opposed to mining the exploitative catharsis of reveling in Morton’s wounds.
The resulting film is one that leaves viewers aglow with admiration for Morton as we see him navigate the tension of living a much more privileged life than that of his family. Whether he is explaining the oppressive systems that effect his family or mentoring his nephew, Treshon, Morton’s emotional wisdom shines through and should be absorbed. Part of this is made possible through his dedication to his craft which has been a centering activity throughout his life. His earlier works that he made while in prison often depicted his fellow inmates. From the glimpses we get of them, they were incredibly rich portraits where personalities and place shined through. His later works are more subdued but highly refined, taking on the rich-hued backgrounds of history paintings from centuries ago. More recently, he has again moved to paint the people closest to him, his family.
While the biographical aspects of Morton’s life are well-told, what is glaringly missing from the film is a serious discussion of his art. Where are the long shots of his paintings or interviews with his teachers or art historians to add further context about his stylistic development? How did he come to gain these skills before his formal training as a painter? Many questions are left unanswered. Another major component of Morton’s oeuvre that Boesten fails to discuss are the murals and portraits he made in prison.
One strength of the film, however, is Morton’s own ruminations on his place within art history. Art is a way for Morton to untangle the systemic issues that he and his community face. One way is by looking back to African history for dignified representations of Black people. He cites looking at ancient Egyptian art and marveling at the level of naturalism they had achieved.
The first Black graduate of Florence Academy of Art in the United States, in 2017, Morton has often had to supplement what he learned there with his own research. The Academy’s painting classes were completely focused on learning how to depict white subjects, and in the film, he describes painting white faces “over and over,” in “a worship of all things white.” Painting Black skin and Black figures was something he had to pursue on his own.
One key moment comes as he flips through a book of sculptures of Black people. “Why don’t we have plaster casts of this incredibly subtle and naturalistic sculpture?” he asks. “Is it because it’s depicting Africans in an elevated and dignified state?”
Even still, Morton continues to have a deep love for the European artists who he sees his art in conversation with, one that extends back in time to how influence ancient Egyptian art has been to art art history. “I see [naturalism] as a tradition that existed before Rembrandt and all my favorite Old Masters,” he says. “They kept the torch burning for people like me to step up and take my rightful place in it.”